20th Mar, 2014By Softmints6 minutes

MountainStruggle is one of those old maps where relatively simple scripting plus creative thinking produced some interesting results. The game is 5v5, and is themed around two opposing nations which are separated by a giant mountain. The lanes defy usual conventions by weaving their way over and under the mountain's ridge, resulting in a rather unique layout.

Overhead view of the battlefield. There are practically no gaps between the lanes
O'er the mountain we struggle...

Lanes:

These deserve individual discussion:

  • Mountain Lanes (Yellow and Pink): The outermost lanes follow a narrow path up the mountain, and intersect along the ridge separating the two teams. At the centre of the ridge, there is a weak Watch Tower which exchanges control whenever it is killed. It is more useful for its persistent vision than as a defensive instalment.
  • Ground Lanes: (Teal): These lanes follow the shores of each lake, leading to the entrance of a cave. This entrance is a teleporter which leads to a small underground chamber, which contains teleporters to exit on either side of the mountain. Units travel through the cave, and continue towards the enemy base on the other side. Inside the cave is a Fire Tower which exchanges control when killed. Instead of attacking, it casts a negative-armour debuff on enemy units.
    A demon hunter hero fights with friendly troops inside a dusty cave
    The isolated cavern, with its Fire Tower at the top.
  • Water Lane: (Orange): This lane is the most direct, and also the shortest. Inside each lake is a teleporter which leads directly to the opposing lake. The lakes are surrounded by towers from the ground lanes, and as there's no 'space' in the middle of the lane due to teleporters, units are almost always under fire from one team's towers. The water units are able to hit the ground lane's towers though, as they're close to the shore. The water lane isn't accessible to units or heroes who can't swim or fly.

All three lanes are short, narrow, and can easily get cramped with units. There is very little space to manoeuvre, but as there aren't really any side-objectives, the lack of alternative places to be keeps players focused on the action at hand.

Each troop wave on the land-based lanes has a commander unit, which is equipped with a different aura depending on which of the four lanes it spawned at. This isn't terribly important as there's a lot of overlap, but because the troop spawns are staggered (every 12 seconds, a different barracks will send its wave), a successfully pushing wave can sometimes enjoy the benefit of two auras.

The commander troops also drop a random item when they die. These items include consumables like healing potions, permanent items which improve stats, powerup runes which provide instant healing or other beneficial effects.

Troops clash along the shores of the lake. Many items can be seen scattered among the corpses
Sadly, these formerly pristine nature trails have been subject to littering.

Soulstones:

Commander troops also drop one other type of item, called Soulstones, which are comfortably the most valuable drop available. They are used to supplement each team's troop production.

The four coloured stone iconsThere are four primary colours of Soulstone: Melee, Ranged, Caster, and Water/Air. They all start at level 1 by default, but can be merged to produce higher-level stones.

Soulstones don't do anything when held by heroes, but they can be placed inside a barracks to add new units to that barracks' creep wave, with the unit spawned depending on the stone. The level 1 stones add a Militia, Wurm, Sheep, or Mur'gul Slave to the wave. Up to six stones may be placed in each barracks, and they cannot be removed.

Soulstones may be merged at the Forge in each team's base. The Forge takes two stones, and merges them into a new one. The resulting stone will have level equal to the sum of the component stones. Examples:

  • Level 1 Melee + Level 1 Melee = Level 2 Melee (Footman)
  • Level 1 Melee + Level 2 Melee = Level 3 Melee (Grunt)
  • Level 2 Caster + Level 2 Caster = Level 4 Caster (Renegade Wizard)

The highest level of stone is 4. It is also possible to combine stones of different colour together to produce a unique result, but the new 'mixed' stone cannot be used in any further merges.

  • Level 2 Ranged + Level 2 Water/Air = Level 4 (Dragon Turtle), a ranged siege unit which can swim.

In total, there are 52 different units which can be produced via Soulstones. I like this mechanic for choosing units, particularly when compared to a direct listing of the 52 options. With Soulstones, units are tiered by 'price' in an intuitive way, the combination for a particular unit is easy to remember (or can be guessed by observing the unit in action), and there's more than enough diversity to keep the game interesting.

If you don't want to rely on randomly dropped Soulstones, or prefer to accelerate your troop production, it's possible to buy Soulstones directly from a shop in your base, though you need a special resource called Diamonds to pay for them.

Given the limited capacity of each Barracks, and the inability to remove stones once deployed, it might seem like saving up for level 4 stones is always the best choice. However, stones don't drop all that quickly, so a team taking the time to employ this strategy might get overrun by an army with 4x the units using level 1 stones. Quantity versus quality balances itself nicely here.

Quests:

Occasionally, the game will announce a quest, which reward Diamonds upon completion. These are a secondary player resource (like gold) which is primarily used for buying Soulstones. Usually, quests take the form of some neutral creeps being spawned on the map, with a bounty of diamonds for killing them. There's also the 'gladiator' quest, where killing a hero or stash within the next 30 seconds will grant bonus gold and diamonds, and a couple of others.

A large bronze dragon flies from the mid lane to the lake, about to attack a lone archer troop
Suddenly: a dragon!
Suddenly: a dragon!

 

Item Drops and Stashes:

At the beginning of each match, players select their hero, and choose a Stash: a special hero-unit dedicated to the storage and delivery of items.

There are three types of stash available:

  • Stationary Stash: As the name implies, this stash can't move and remains in your base for the entire game. It has plenty of life, a ranged attack, and strong defensive abilities like temporary magic immunity, life drain, and mana shield.
  • Packbeast: This stash is mobile, fairly durable, and a good all-round choice. It can't attack, but is well-suited to ferrying items, and has abilities that provide temporary protection from harm like divine shield and phase shift. These abilities work in-combat, making it more suited for aggressive play.
  • Messenger: This horse starts with significantly less life than the other two, but makes up for it in speed and mobility. Its abilities include blink and wind walk, which help it roam around the map picking up and delivering items as quickly as possible.

As heroes are limited to 6 item slots, the stashes allow players a little more control and security than leaving all their unequipped items lying around the base. They can also be used to gather up items which are lying around and sell them for a modest profit.

The stashes revive when killed, and keep any items they were holding, just like heroes do, which removes most of the risk you'd expect when using them. The exception here is Soulstones, which always drop on death.

While most items in the game will appear as random drops, a couple of high-end ones must be bought, and it's also possible to spend gold on hiring player-controlled mercenary units.

Stashes prove crucial for controlling the game and gaining an advantage. Aside from helping to grab items, they can also be equipped with aura items or consumables which would otherwise take up valuable space in your main hero's inventory. The stationary stash (which sits in base) is a poor companion for this reason.

A pack horse sits on-lane with lots of aura indicators beneath it. Nearby troops have a strong blue glow beneath them, showing they are affected by many auras
This pony makes a difference! Six aura items in action.

Other Features:

The hero abilities are very close to regular Warcraft abilities, but heroes can access up to 7 of them: four levelled hero abilities, a randomly rolled 'ability' and a randomly rolled 'spell', both of which are bought from the shop by spending diamonds, and an ultimate which is automatically granted at level 15.

As a result, there isn't much to be said for building heroes in any particular way. The two rolled skills are of different types: the 'spell' will have a mana cost, the 'ability' won't.

The map's code suggests that there were further plans for the forge. I mentioned previously that inside the underground chamber is a Fire Tower: several other tower types were also defined within the map file. It seems it was intended that heroes could merge the innocuous Ivory Tower item (which allows you to place a mini-tower that grants vision) with various other items like a damage item to create a damaging mini-tower, or a healing item to create a healing mini-tower. Due to the surplus of items around the map from drops, this is a nice way to recycle redundant items which would otherwise just be sold off.

There are only a few strategic locations on the map where mini-towers may be placed: clearly intended to augment existing defences, which explains why so many apply debuffs rather than dealing any damage. These mini-towers have inventory slots, but can't use or benefit from items, so they provide optional storage.

Near two regular stone towers, we see a patch of 'undead blight' with a small ivory tower built upon it
A patch of fertile, tower-growing goodness.

Another odd details is the Duelling Area. This can be accessed by players on either team by taking a direct teleporter from their base. Occasionally a quest will take place there, but it seems to be primarily for players to duke it out if the mood takes them. Fun features like this are nice once in a while.

Closing Thoughts:

As should be apparent, MountainStruggle is a game which embraces a chaotic battlefield. Optimal play requires a surprising level of hero and stash micro, along with attending to macro concerns like Soulstones, reacting to randomly presented quests, and trying to build your hero around whatever random abilities you rolled.

There isn't much overall strategy aside from grabbing what you can, and I feel players are rewarded too highly for managing the logistics of ferrying items around the map. That said, the game makes good use of the systems it has, and executes well at keeping players busy and focused on the action.